Expecting everyone to believe that one plus two equals four without a systematic scientific method to prove it will result in a pseudoscientific claim, or in simple terms, bad science.
All scientific knowledge is based on two things: observation and logic. Good research follows such methods to produce reliable scientific data, which is also applied in the court of law to ensure impartiality, fairness, and the most truthful results to preserve or uphold justice.
“While anybody is free to approach a scientific inquiry in any fashion they choose, they cannot properly describe the methodology as scientific, if they start with the conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation,” said the late Judge William Overton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (1939-1987).
The Scientific Method
The scientific method is used to examine our surroundings and gain knowledge from them. For example, mathematics is a form of science: one plus two equals three. ‘One plus two’ is the method, and ‘three’ is the answer derived from that method. The answer ‘three’ is a fact that will produce the same results no matter how many times we repeat the process.
This factual approach is the best and the most reliable method for achieving accuracy. Expecting everyone to believe that one plus two equals four without a systematic scientific method to prove it will result in a pseudoscientific claim, or in simple terms, bad science.
Another example of a factual approach can be observed in the court of law. Instead of starting with a conclusion and then looking for evidence to support it, the court looks at the evidence before making a verdict. They conclude their findings based on available evidence.
Here’s how the scientific method works:
Based on the scientific theory flow-chart image above, the scenario below is one example of how it’s applied in practice. I’ll use my name Nick as the scientist or researcher at work in this example:
One day, Nick was researching a mysterious natural phenomenon exhibiting supernatural and paranormal influence. He believes it can cure all diseases and give insight into an alternate reality beyond ours. At this stage, we say, “Nick is working on a problem.”
Later, Nick gets an idea of how to explain this mystery. At this stage, we say, “Nick has a hypothesis.”
To see whether his hypothesis is correct, Nick enters the next stage. He predicts what should happen with this phenomenon under certain circumstances.
Nick then performs several experiments and measurements. He collects plenty of data and continuously tests his hypothesis using the scientific method. When his scientific research and experiments are finally over, Nick may discover his prediction was wrong. If so, he would have to change his hypothesis and start over.
However, if Nick’s prediction is correct, he writes down or records his results and submits them to a scientific journal. A scientific journal is not just some science publishing house. It’s not a group of friends, selected scientists, or a selection of people Nick thinks are best to peer review his results. It has to be a reputable scientific journal so that Nick’s findings can be properly peer-reviewed by qualified scientists to produce unbiased results.
The scientific journal team then gets other experts in the same field (often from all over the world) to review Nick’s findings, specifically looking for mistakes or errors before it’s approved according to scientific standards. This process applies even if Nick is a well-known, experienced scientist. Nick could also be a highly intellectual person, with all the necessary credentials, having never been wrong before. He could hold numerous degrees and awards while representing a prestigious scientific organization. Nick may also have others who agree with his ideas. These credentials still do not excuse his findings from being submitted for peer review and thoroughly scrutinized.
Scientists who have yet to submit their findings to be peer-reviewed have a higher probability of errors or producing fraudulent results. This process keeps out the proponents of pseudoscience and bogus claims.
Though the peer review process isn’t perfect and absolutely 100% error-free either, it’s still the best process for analyzing claims and determining which ones are least likely to be wrong.
“Science is the single most consistently reliable method we have for determining an understanding of reality.”Matt Dillahunty
Psychologist Dr. Keith Stanovich explains it this way: “… one important way to distinguish charlatans and practitioners of pseudoscience from legitimate scientists, is the former often bypass the normal channels of scientific publication and instead go straight to the media with ‘their findings.’ One ironclad criterion that will always work for the public when presented with scientific claims of uncertain validity is the question: ‘Have the findings been published in a recognized scientific journal that uses some type of peer review procedure?’ The answer to this question will almost always separate pseudoscientific claims from the real thing…
Not all information in peer-reviewed scientific journals is necessarily correct, but at least it has met a criterion of peer criticism and scrutiny. It is a minimal criterion, not a stringent one, because most scientific disciplines publish many different journals of varying quality. Most scientific ideas can get published somewhere in the legitimate literature if they meet some rudimentary standards. The idea that only a narrow range of data and theory can get published in science is false. This is an idea often suggested by purveyors of bogus remedies and therapies who try to convince the media and the public that they have been shut out of scientific outlets by a conspiracy of ‘orthodox science.’
… the failure of an idea, a theory, a claim, or a therapy to have adequate documentation in the peer-reviewed literature of a scientific discipline is very diagnostic. Particularly when the lack of evidence is accompanied by a media campaign to publicize the claim, it is a sure sign that the idea, theory, or therapy is bogus…
The peer review process is far from perfect, but it is really the only consumer protection we have. To ignore it (or not be aware of it) is to leave ourselves at the mercy of the multimillion-dollar pseudoscience industries that are so good at manipulating the media to their own ends…”
Suppose Nick followed the scientific method meticulously while conducting his experiments and got all of his data and calculations accurate, his findings will then be published in the scientific journal after the peer-review process.
The next stage is replication, where other independent scientists attempt to reproduce Nick’s results. Like the peer review process, replication is also an essential scientific element.
Again, psychologist Keith Stanovich explains it this way: “Scientific knowledge is public in a special sense… scientific knowledge does not exist solely in the mind of a particular individual. In an important sense, scientific knowledge does not exist at all until it has been submitted to the scientific community for criticism and empirical testing by others. Knowledge that is considered ’special’ – the province of the thought processes of a particular individual, immune from scrutiny and criticism by others – can never have the status of scientific knowledge. Science makes the idea of public verifiability concrete via the procedure of replication.
In order to be considered in the realm of science, a finding must be presented to the scientific community in a way that enables other scientists to attempt the same experiment and obtain the same results. When this occurs, we say the finding has been replicated… It ensures that a particular finding is not due simply to the errors or biases of a particular investigator. In short, for a finding to be accepted by the scientific community, it must be possible for someone other than the original investigator to duplicate it…”
Creation science and intelligent design ideas propose that life on Earth was supernaturally created by a supernatural being called God. These ideas have been characterized as pseudoscience by the mainstream scientific community for the very reasons explained above. And so, the proponents of creation science and intelligent design often turn this scientific replication requirement back on the theory of evolution. The argument is as follows: “Evolution involves events that cannot be repeated or reproduced in the laboratory, so it does not depend on science in the usual sense of the word.” — creationism.org
However, such experiments on evolution can be repeated or reproduced in a laboratory, as demonstrated by scientist Dr. Carl Sagan (1934-1996) in his writings and in a 1980 thirteen-part television series called the Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. In it, Dr. Sagan says:
“We mix together and spark the gases of the primitive Earth: hydrogen, water, ammonia methane, hydrogen sulfide all present, incidentally, on the planet Jupiter today and throughout the Cosmos. The sparks correspond to lightning also present on the ancient Earth and on modern Jupiter. The reaction vessel is initially transparent: the precursor gases are entirely invisible. But after ten minutes of sparking, we see a strange brown pigment slowly streaking the sides of the vessel. The interior gradually becomes opaque, covered with a thick brown tar. If we had used ultraviolet light simulating the early Sun, the results would have been more or less the same. The tar is an extremely rich collection of complex organic molecules, including the constituent parts of proteins and nucleic acids. The stuff of life, it turns out, can be very easily made.
Such experiments were first performed in the early 1950’s by Stanley Miller, then a graduate student of the chemist Harold Urey… Under the right circumstances in the test tube, short nucleic acids can synthesize identical copies of themselves… no one has so far mixed together the gases and waters of the primitive Earth and at the end of the experiment had something crawl out of the test tube… but we have been performing such experiments for only some thirty years… nature has had a four billion-year head start. All in all, we have not done badly.”
There are other examples where pseudoscience advocates undermined science to support their own “scientifically proven” claims. Nevertheless, a pseudoscience remains a pseudoscience until proven otherwise through the scientific method. Here are a couple of links to lists of known pseudosciences:
Falsifiability is another important scientific concept. A claim cannot be scientific or be subjected to scientific inquiry unless it is falsifiable.
Other than passing the replication process, Nick’s experiments must be able to be refuted and retested. The term “falsifiable” here does not mean that Nick’s experiments are false or amended to be made false.
For example, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in elaboration of the original quote from geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, said that if there was a single fossil mammal (like a rabbit) in the Precambrian rocks, it would completely blow the theory of evolution out of the water.
Evolution is based on three principles: variation, heredity, and selection; if any of these were shown to be flawed, then the theory would also be false. In addition, any of the following would also falsify the theory:
- If it could be proven that mutations do not occur.
- If it could be proven that, although mutations do occur, they are not passed down through the generations.
- If it could be proven that selection or environmental pressures do not favor the reproductive success of better adapted individuals.
“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications; my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.” — Charles Darwin (1809-1882), English naturalist
Theory of Evolution
Evolution is falsifiable, unlike the ideas of intelligent design or creation science which are deemed not falsifiable, and it makes no predictions that can be tested. However, if a claim can’t be falsified, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or false either. It just means it’s yet to be proven, or it’s not based on science, as it demonstrates the primary characteristics of pseudoscience or bad science.
Anti-evolutionists may claim that scientists will never allow the theory of evolution to be falsified. They may say that scientists use dishonest methods to prevent this from happening. They may also say that the theory of evolution is actually the theory of “evil-ution” that came from the devil and is a scientific conspiracy to stop people from believing in the existence of God. But science doesn’t work that way.
The irony is that fundamentalists don’t criticize scientists when they come up with theories explaining electricity, for example. They may even support that theory as a fact. And yet, they think scientists get everything hopelessly wrong about the origins of our species and the universe.
One difference between scientists and pseudoscientists is that scientists are willing to re-examine facts objectively. At the same time, they are also willing to reconsider a theory (even one as widely accepted as the theory of evolution) if observations and experiments present a discovery that contradicts or falsifies old ideas.
“…a scientific theory must be tentative and always subject to revision or abandonment in light of the facts that are inconsistent with or falsify the theory. A theory that is by its own terms dogmatic, absolutist, and never subject to revision is not a scientific theory.” — Judge William Overton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (1939-1987)
“The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” — Karl Popper (1902-1994), Austrian Philosopher of Science
“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” — Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German Scientist
Theory vs. Fact
Scientific “theory” is not the opposite of “fact”. For example, the theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity and the theory of electromagnetism, is indeed a fact. You might think, “Well, if it is a fact, then why call it a theory? Why not simply call it a fact? Even better, why not call it the ‘fact of evolution?’”
In science, nothing is infallible. Nothing is absolute. Scientific theories are supported by observable evidence. The theory must be consistent with new theories in other fields of knowledge. New technologies based on that theory have to work the same. For as long as this occurs, a scientific theory is indeed a scientific fact and can be added to scientific journals and school science textbooks. And yet, it’s still open for updates when new and improved data are discovered. Even pillars of science like the theory of gravity and the theory of electromagnetism are always open for new updates. Such updates don’t mean they overturn previous theories; they complement them and give us a better understanding of how something works.
Science is self-correcting cumulative knowledge
As with everything else in life, science isn’t perfect, and errors occur from time to time, but with the advancements in technology, experience, and cumulative knowledge, errors are minimized, and the process is self-correcting. Science may not be able to guarantee perfection, but it does guarantee that mistakes will be corrected. It’s unwise to dump scientific theories because of these imperfections and hold on to unsubstantiated paranormal, supernatural, and superstitious claims to fill in the gaps that science has not found answers to yet.
Bad science will always be exposed for what it truly is. In the meantime, it’s important to ensure that what we learn in science class has been thoroughly tested, verified, and supported by evidence.
As you can see from the above scientific stages, it’s not easy for something to become “scientifically proven”. There are many rigorous standards of filtering processes that need to be overcome, and only after this painstaking screening process does a hypothesis finally become a factual theory that gets published in a reputable scientific journal.
Pseudoscience, on the other hand, consists of statements, beliefs, or practices claimed to be scientific and factual in the absence of evidence gathered by scientific methods. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated, or unfalsifiable claims; it relies on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation. It also lacks openness to evaluation by other scientists and is absent of systematic practices when developing theories.
Science journalist potholer54 summarizes everything written above with what he playfully calls the ten commandments of science:
10 Commandments of Science
I. Thou shalt base thy conclusion on the evidence.
II. Thou shalt measure objectively, not guess subjectively.
III. Thou shalt back up thy statements with evidence. Just claiming something is a fact doesn’t make it a fact.
IV. Thou shalt use large sample sets.
V. Thy tests shall be double-blinded.
VI. Thy tests shall have observable controls.
VII. Thou shalt cite thy sources of information.
VIII. Thy sources of information must be reliable, verifiable, and backed up by evidence.
IX. Thy opinion is not a fact.
X. Thou shalt not bear false witness; don’t lie!